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Slimantics: History preserved, generations entertained through storytelling

 

Slim Smith

 

This week, Possum Town Tales, also known as the second annual Storytellers Festival, is being held at the Rosenzweig Center, featuring a trio of renowned storytellers. 

 

The festival, which began Tuesday and continues through Saturday, features master storytellers Carmen Agra Deedy, originally from Cuba; Len Cabral, whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from West Africa; and Kunkio Yamamoto, a native of Japan. 

 

In addition to those accomplished storytellers, local residents are invited to share their stories. There is also a storytelling workshop, something that leaves me a bit skeptical because teaching Southerners how to tell stories seems to me about as necessary as teaching a cat how to meow. As one of Mississippi's great storytellers, Eudora Welty, once observed, "Southerners love a good tale. They are born reciters, great memory retainers, diary keepers, letter exchangers ... great talkers." 

 

Welty's observation is affirmed by the presence of such legendary Southern storytellers as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Willie Morris, John Kennedy Toole, etc., etc. The list of great Southern storytellers seems endless, with new storytellers emerging almost every day, it seems. 

 

But maybe in this day of texting and Facebook, we may have lost a little of those storytelling skills. So maybe the workshop isn't so bad an idea after all. 

 

Certainly, the importance of storytelling cannot be overestimated. Much of what was known of world history, at least until the invention of the printing press in 1450, is the direct result of stories passed from generation to generation. It is through storytelling that we preserve not only our history, but our culture. This is particularly true in the African-American community, whose history relied almost exclusively on storytelling well into the 19th century. 

 

While we all have a shared interest in the storytelling that has helped preserve our culture and keep our history, storytelling is also a very personal matter. The events of history and the lives of great men may be well-documented, but the history of most regular people are kept through the stories that you often hear when families gather together, perhaps at Christmas or around the Thanksgiving table. Those stories unite us with family members long departed and help us understand our own place in the long family narrative.  

 

In each family, I am convinced, there is one storyteller for each generation. 

 

This is true, at least, in my family. I was the sixth child of parents who had, between them, 12 siblings. Those aunts and uncles also had big broods and that meant scores of cousins. Our family reunions were great sprawling affairs, built around fried fish and lemonade drawn from an enormous tin washtub. The stories began around the deep fryer in the morning and continued until nightfall when we all said our goodbyes. 

 

We came from the ranks of poor north Mississippi sharecroppers and much emphasis was put on hard work and education to the point that my cousins included all manner of professionals -- PhDs and medical doctors, dentists, even a rogue lawyer or two. And, of course, I grew up to be a writer of sorts. 

 

And yet the unquestioned storyteller among the cousins was Frankie Connor, who spent most of his life as a baggage handler at the Memphis airport. 

 

Frankie would not seemed to have met any of the criteria you would expect of a storyteller. He wasn't widely read or well-educated. If you have asked him to write down a story, he would have given up in a fit of frustration. 

 

But somehow, with the family gathered around, Frankie held his audience mesmerized. His accounts of our family's history were outrageously funny and often poignant. He delivered them in plain, simple speech, with never a suggestion that his stories were anything but an extemporaneous recollection of such incidents as "Uncle J.D. and the $4 pig" or "How Aunt Anna cured Uncle Enoch of Stuttering." In each telling over the years, the story seemed to change, with new details emerging and the story taking on a new life. You could hear Frankie tell the same story for a dozen years and somehow, it would be wonderfully new each time. 

 

We preserve our personal and cultural history through storytelling, but I believe it goes even deeper than that. 

 

It's almost as if we were born with a gene that compels us to seek out stories. 

 

You know this to be true. 

 

When a child climbs into the lap of a mom or dad or grandparent or favorite aunt, you know what that child is soon to say:  

 

"Tell me a story."

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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